Posted July 16, 2010 in Word Made Flesh:
When You Can’t Say Prayers

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

What do you say when you think you have just written a significant, deep, wonderful, life-giving, fantastic, momentous, world-changing article and your editor says, "I read it carefully several times and could not get a handle on what you are saying"?

Well, after you use up a whole box of Kleenex—boo hoo hoo—you remember that part of your editor’s job is to remind you that not every word from your mind or mouth is necessarily significant, deep, wonderful, life-giving, fantastic and momentous.

So there! That’s what good editors are for, Patrick: to keep people like you in Reality! And yours is a good editor. So, let’s try it again.

I was writing about Lk 11:1-13, the passage in the Gospel for July 25th, the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. His answer is, of course, "The Our Father," which is really a lesson in how to pray, something that is more obvious in the same story in the Gospel of Matthew (6:7-15).

So now, let’s take a whole different tack and see where the Spirit takes me this time.

I don’t think I learned how to pray until I couldn’t "say my prayers" anymore. It was a time in my life when I was flat on my face, emotionally and spiritually. "Saying my prayers" did not lift me up so I stopped saying them.

I knew all about Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross who said that there are times in our life when "saying our prayers" becomes impossible, but that to stop saying them doesn’t have to mean that you stop praying.

But this was the first time I was experiencing this inability in my own flesh, my own mind, and my own heart to the extent I was experiencing it then. And I was dreadfully disappointed in God, in myself, and in prayer—including "The Lord’s Prayer."

Flat on my face? Yes, when a secure, meaningful life falls apart, it often feels like you are so far down you can’t get up—like you are flat on your face.

But I was surprised to discover after a short period of time that in some strange fashion it became a rather comfortable position, this "flat on your face" thing.

There were no more questions because there were no more answers, no list of prayers to say, and no energy with which to make any drastic or dramatic changes in my life. All I could do was to just be there, flat on my face.

Our beloved saints also tell us that that is precisely where we must be if the Spirit is to teach us how to pray rather than just say our prayers. (Big difference!)

The teaching aids the Spirit uses at those moments in our lives are very mysterious, tailor-made for each of us, I think, and very often what we end up doing doesn’t seem like prayer at all.

The teaching aid the Spirit used with me was the Book of Revelation! When I could not say my prayers anymore, I would open the Bible to the Book of Revelation, to those powerful scenes where zillions of angels with wings and eyes all over the place were before the Throne of God just "being" themselves: bowed down to the ground, on their faces before something so joyful and wonderful all they could say/pray was, "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

The more I read about them and their simple prayer, the more I knew that I could do that—even in the state I was in. I was, after all, already flat on my face.

So I often joined them. I cried out and sang with them, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" It was the most natural prayer I had ever "said." I could walk around all day without a prayer-care in the world and just be together with all those wonderful angels. And it was all as simple as, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

After that prayer had been woven into my very bones, all bowed down there before God, the Spirit stepped in again and drew me into something even more simple and powerful: The Jesus Prayer. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

Eventually, that got simplified even more for me: it became the ceaseless repetition of that single word, Jesus.

This is a very unusual and remarkable prayer because eventually it becomes such a part of you that it comes and goes on the breath of your mouth, of your soul. Breathe in: Jesus. Breathe out: Jesus. If you breathe, you pray. I had never prayed like that before.

And then one day, for no particular reason, I turned to "The Lord’s Prayer" again. This time I sensed the awe, the reverence, the holiness of it. And I realized that all the other "praying" had been from the Spirit teaching me how to pray. Now I was ready to pray the "The Lord’s Prayer" rather than just say it.

Our Father: I am Your child whether or not anybody else ever loved me when I was a child. Who art in heaven: I have nothing to worry about because I’m going to go where You are.

Hallowed be Thy name: Your name is sacred and since You are my Father, that means my name is sacred to You as well, even if nobody else on the face of the earth knows me by name.

Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven: Whether others do Your Will or not, I know that I am safe doing it, here on earth and ever after. Amen. And so it goes.

I haven’t finished my own meditation on "The Lord’s Prayer" yet. Maybe some other time.

Till then, try to imagine what just came to my mind this very moment: the angels move all around heaven praying their wonderful, "Holy, Holy, Holy," and we can join them whenever we want. But, they can’t pray "The Lord’s Prayer"! It was created for us and us alone. Is that special or what?

I guess that all depends on whether we "say" it or "pray" it. Little by little, I think I’m getting there. What about you? Need a little help?

Did you ever read an article twice?


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